Memphis administrators respond to “Break FERPA” campaign

When we launched our Break FERPA campaign, we wanted to see how universities would respond when students asked for their own records in the same over-broad way schools use when withholding public records.

Would schools maintain their previously held position, and turn over all the emails, notes, memos, video, audio, parking tickets or phone records where a student is personally identifiable, even if not mentioned by name? Or would they acknowledge that these types of records aren’t the “education records” Congress had in mind when it passed the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act in 1974.

A little over a week into the project, we have our first answer. The staff of The Daily Helmsman at the University of Memphis asked their administrators about Break FERPA and about their interpretation of the federal law. (If you don’t remember, earlier this year Memphis administrators didn’t want to give the Helmsman a police incident report about a rape on campus, saying it was an educational record protected by FERPA. Eventually, the school released the police report, which Congress specifically exempted from FERPA in 1992.)

University of Memphis attorney Sheryl Lipman said it’s “unfair” to say the school hides behind the law. Here’s what the school considers to be protected by FERPA: “What the law says is any personally identifiable document is covered as a student education record,” she said. “It means every document that exists on this campus that can be tied to any particular student is an educational record.”

Now we know — any record on campus that can be tied to any student, the same over-broad definition we wondered whether schools would stand behind. The Helmsman invited students to use our letter generator to request their own FERPA records, so it looks like students who do will be getting a whole heap of records, far and above what Congress ever intended.

This is just the start. If you haven’t yet, request your own FERPA records, and see what the school says. Share the results with us, or write about it as the Helmsman did.